Wu-Tang: An American Saga is a gritty, though dramatized look at overcoming a hellish world to find success. Seeing the world through the eyes of a young RZA is equal parts informative and entertaining. Some episodes read like a history lesson on one of the most successful and influential rap groups of the 1990s, and some that seem like manufactured drama. Where the show succeeds in its message, it tends to fall flat on its delivery.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga, created by RZA and Alex Tse, is the story of the formative years of each of the original members of the clan. The first episode starts with a bang, literally. Sha/Raekwon (Shameik Moore) shoots up the apartment of Dennis/Ghostface Killah (Siddiq Saunderson). Right away, the rivalry between Park Hill and Stapleton housing projects takes the spotlight. Caught in the middle is Bobby Diggs/RZA (Ashton Sanders), who has close friendships with both Sha and Dennis.
Season one is a story of triumph in the face of adversity. Finding a way to follow your dreams amid a living hell. The show takes place during the height of the crack epidemic of the early 90s, depicting surroundings devoid of hope. Bobby wants to make music, but his older brother Divine (Julian Elijah Martinez) sees the drug game as the only way to provide for the family. Despair and danger lurk around every corner, and even Bobby’s friends can’t sense a way out. Bobby continually wages war against his circumstances, trying to unite his family and friends when so much threatens to tear them apart.
“This actually happened… here’s the proof”
The series does a lot of things well. Retelling portions of the history behind the formation of the iconic rap group are some of the brightest spots throughout the season. You get a great sense of what it’s like to work your way from obscurity to stardom. Bobby’s cousin, Gary/GZA (Johnell Young) is the one that gets him and their friend Shotgun/Method Man (David Brewster) their first foot in the door to the music industry. They all get a lot of initial interest, with Bobby and Gary signing to Tommy Boy Records.
Unfortunately, their first taste of the music business leaves them with a bitter taste in their mouths. They are forced to become part of the machine, losing their identities. Bobby gets railroaded time and time again into things that go against his nature. The label forces Bobby into shooting one of the corniest rap videos of all time. Predictably, the single fails, and Bobby loses his record deal. At the end of episode 8, “Labels,” they roll the original video referenced in the episode during the credits. The producers are telling you at that moment, “this actually happened, here’s the proof.” Those small touches are the most enjoyable part of the season.
Naturally, manufactured drama is mixed in with a sprinkling of the truth. An accurate 1-to-1 retelling of their lives would be impossible to do. Rza grew up in a house with 11 brothers and sisters at one time. In the show, he only has two brothers and one sister, Shurrie (Zoe Griggs). The key is to realize that the show is technically a fictionalization of their history. Understanding that will make the series much more enjoyable, as opposed to picking it apart to find the facts among the fiction.
Drama for drama’s sake
For all that Wu-Tang: An American Saga does well, it falls short in places. The main gripe I have with the show is that the acting falls flat in a few scenes. Ashton Sanders, especially in early episodes, seems too subdued, even emotionless. Perhaps some of the actors are newer and not as experienced with appearing authentic in front of the camera. If so, that’s fixable with time. However, the directors/producers should work with their young talent more closely on the smaller details. That said, it isn’t something the series suffers from regularly and doesn’t take much away from the overall enjoyment of the show.
Sometimes it feels like the writers place drama in the way for drama’s sake. The introduction of Attila, a large, ruthless man fresh out of prison at the start of episode 9, is just that. He’s the big bad guy on the block. A new adversary to take on that’s shoehorned in to create a conflict. The series already establishes so many other conflicts between characters, and it feels a bit unnecessary for Attila to be there.
One character I would like to have seen more of is Ason/Ol’ Dirty Bastard (T.J. Atoms). He has a fair amount of scenes in the first season; however, the show did a disservice to itself by not including him more. Atom’s portrayal of ODB is a highlight of the series. He nails the look, the voice, and the mannerisms perfectly in every scene he’s a part of. When he’s in the booth cutting his part of the “Protect Your Neck” demo, you would almost swear that ODB had come back to life if you didn’t know better.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga is a strong story that’s equal parts history and drama. The writing blends fact with fiction to create a compelling story. Some scenes could come off more genuine, but it doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience. The minor issues can be fixed over time. There is no announcement for a second season yet. It’s likely an inevitability, given all the buzz and generally high praise from critics and fans. There is enough history of the group to keep die-hard Wu fans happy, and there’s enough of a story for anyone just looking for entertaining television. If you can stomach a gritty tale of life in the streets, it’s well worth the time you will invest in watching.